Revisiting history

One idea, that both excites me and sparks a deep sense of dread, is the amount of information there is that I might never learn. Like the character Amélie Poulain, I try to notice the beauty of the world spinning around me, and the uncountable ways in which we are all connected. This is especially true in a community as intimate as Tantramar: hundreds of stories are playing out on the streets, campus hallways, and spilling over the boardwalks of Waterfowl Park. We are blessed with extensive resources at the Mount Allison Library and Archives to preserve some of our history, but even then information does little good without knowledge of its presence. It was, thus, a great pleasure to learn of the Mt. A class working hard to ensure one such story stays alive: the students of HIST-2301: Intro to Environmental History, revisiting the long history of the Chignecto Naturalists’ Club.


The year 2023 marks 50 years since the formation of the Chignecto Naturalists’ Club, a group deeply tied to the Tantramar region. With members hailing from all of Chignecto, including Amherst, Dorchester, and Moncton, the club connects diverse nature-lovers (predominantly birders) and hosts meetings and field trips. Mt. A’s Ralph Pickard Bell Library holds the majority of their archives. 


“The collections span 1973 to 2013, so the last ten years are still with the current club,” says Dr. Danielle Inkpen, environmental historian and historian of science professor at Mt. A. She is the educator and guiding force behind the project currently undertaken by HIST-2301: Intro to Environmental History, in which students are researching the archives and history of the Naturalists’ Club with the goal of creating a commemorative booklet outlining the Club’s half-century in existence.


“The majority of the students will do archival work with the papers [in the library],” she explains,  “researching things like the club’s founding, its initial membership, the rationale, its finances, how it changes over time, [and] the kinds of projects that it was involved in, including the establishment of Waterfowl Park.”


A subset of the class are recording oral histories with the current and surviving members of the club. “And then there is one final group of students doing a bit more secondary research, so they’re going to be introducing the booklet by placing it in a wider context of the history of Natural History and naturalist activities in general.”


It is a complex task, for a class of just over 40 students. It is valuable, as well; the opportunity to interact with primary resources and histories with immediate ties to our community has many benefits. As Dr. Inkpen shares, “I really do believe you learn best by doing. So doing this kind of historical work really can cultivate a historical sensibility and a way of thinking carefully about the past and how one understands and speaks about it. […] there’s something to that experience that I think impresses itself upon your mind more than just reading textbooks or going to lecture.” She also highlights community-facing aspects of the project: “Hopefully, everybody—if we do some kind of book launch and bring all the folks together—will have a chance to connect with folks in the Sackville and Tantramar area who aren’t at the university.”


Building a collective understanding of our unique connection to and place in the environment here in Tantramar remains a goal of Dr. Inkpen beyond this project: “One of my future hopes is to figure out how to loop the local history of our carboniferous strata into a history of science.” She cites the visit of geologist Sir Charles Lyell to Sackville and the Maritimes as an example. “That’s like saying Darwin came to visit — he was that big of a deal”. 


Along with the invaluable and community-oriented soft skills practiced in a project such as this, Dr. Inkpen adds, “It’s kind of funny to think about: 43 people will leave Mount Allison with a fairly deep understanding of this arguably niche club, but I think that there’s a pedagogical aspect: you learn an understanding of what history is and what it needs to do by doing it.” 

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